From left: Kyra Kyles, Oronike Odeleye, Kenyette Barnes, Jim DeRogatis. “The Case Against R. Kelly: Jim DeRogatis in Conversation,” presented by the Chicago Humanities Festival, took place at Chop Shop on June 13. Credit: Andrea Michelson

It all started with a fax.

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving 2000, journalist Jim DeRogatis received an anonymous fax alleging that singer and Bronzeville native R. Kelly was grooming and sexually abusing underage girls. The fax was sent in response to a review DeRogatis wrote about Kelly’s album, in which he compared Kelly to Marvin Gaye.

“Marvin had his problems, but they were nothing like Robert’s,” the fax read. “Robert’s problem—and this goes back many years—is young girls.” This message marked the beginning of a nearly 20-year fight to expose Kelly through investigative journalism and social activism.

At a Chicago Humanities Festival event on June 13, DeRogatis was joined by #MuteRKelly cofounders Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye in recounting their years-long effort to end the singer’s career. Award-winning media executive and former Ebony editor-in-chief Kyra Kyles moderated the conversation, and perhaps summed up the talk best with the remark, “In short, R. Kelly is scum and should have been destroyed 20 years ago.”

DeRogatis’s book Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly explores why it took so long to bring Kelly down. DeRogatis and then fellow reporter Abdon Pallasch published a detailed case against Kelly in the Chicago Sun-Times in late December 2000, but the claims seemed to slide right off the singer’s smooth persona.

DeRogatis thinks that “the chronic, systemic failure” of the city’s communities and institutions is partly to blame for the years of inaction. Kelly’s Chicago fans lauded him as a hometown hero, and that narrative was hard to let go.

Odeleye, who is from Atlanta, said she understands the appeal of homegrown stars.

“Everybody loves a hometown success story,” Odeleye said. “Everybody can relate to somebody coming from your neighborhood who grew up with your hard times, making a way out of no way, and we want to hold on to that story—even when it when it shows itself to be false.”

But that hometown pride is complicated by the fact that Kelly’s old communities also hold the receipts for his crimes. Odeleye said she has never met a south-sider in her age group who didn’t have their own R. Kelly story about hanging out at the rock ’n’ roll McDonald’s or partying at Kelly’s Olympia Fields mansion. She said that it took several attempts at “holding that mirror up to Chicago’s face” to make the city finally listen and realize its complicity.

Barnes said along with the willful ignorance of Chicago fans, another obstacle to action was and remains the “pathological apathy” toward sexual violence in the Black community. Sixty percent of Black women experience sexual violence before age 18, she said, but they’re just written off as “fast girls,” or their abusers are seen as “sick” and are not held accountable.

“We have created narratives to actually forgive predators in the Black community, because we don’t view sexual violence as a real crime,” Barnes said.

When it comes to intersectionality in the Black community, it’s always race first, Barnes said. In a segregated city like Chicago or her hometown of Cleveland, she said, Black folks get used to protecting their race against white systems designed to take them down. But she said an important message she tries to impart is that someone who is oppressed can oppress someone else, and “my oppression against them is just as devastating as the oppression against me.”

The national discourse around Kelly is particularly important because it’s a rare opportunity for Black and Brown women to take the mike, Odeleye said. Even at this moment, when Kelly is facing a civil lawsuit and criminal charges, the conversation about sexual violence in the Black community is far from over.

“Unfortunately, Black and Brown women don’t often get a national or international platform to talk about the problems that we’re having in our community,” Odeleye said. “It’s really important now that we’ve been able to get it to this point and it took so many people to do it, and we’re still not at the finish line. So we have to keep this conversation going.”   v